Saturday, March 28, 2020

Christian Americanism vs Christian Americanism in the era of covid-19, iMonk's Chaplain Mike vs First Things's R. R. Reno


Hear it again: “God allows trials to come our way to get our relationship back in tune with Him in order to keep us from eternal calamity.”
Is that what God is saying to us in these challenging days? Is a text from 2 Chronicles a word from heaven for us? This minister seems to think so.
In this Covid-19 pandemic, did God “send an epidemic on [his] people” for a purpose? Is God calling us to “repent and turn from the evil [we] have been doing”? If we dedicate ourselves to prayer and this kind of repentance, will God hear us, forgive us, and make us prosperous again?
Many of our spiritual ancestors would have thought so. There is a certain view of Providence (with a capital “P”) that emerges, in my opinion, from an unacceptably flat view of the Bible, one that makes no distinctions between various texts and how they apply. One that sees no progress or development in revelation.
We read a passage of scripture and if it sounds like what we’re going through, we take it as God’s Word™ spoken directly to us. And in a time of natural disaster, the word, culled from a multitude of available First Testament texts, is that God’s judgment is falling upon us. Or, as Pastor Robert Jeffress said in his recent sermon, “Is the Coronavirus a Judgment From God?” — “All natural disasters can ultimately be traced to sin.”
Nor is this merely a Protestant or evangelical perspective. In an article on LifeSite News, Catholic historian and author Dr. Roberto de Mattei calls coronavirus a “scourge from God.” 

While this may be established theology for some, I think it’s bad Bible, failing to recognize the Christocentric nature of true Christian interpretation. At Maclean’s, Michael Coren agrees.
At a more serious or theological level, this is a reductive and banal spirituality that may satisfy the zealot but is dangerously crass and in fact profoundly ungodly. It depicts a genocidal God, sufficiently cruel to hurt indiscriminately, and too indifferent or impotent to be able to punish only those who have genuinely caused harm. It’s all the product of an ancient, fearful belief system that has nothing to do with the gentle Jewish rabbi of the 1st century who called for love and forgiveness, and so distant and different from the Gospel calls of Jesus to turn the other cheek, embrace our enemies, reach out to the most rejected and marginalized, and work for justice and peace.
If God is speaking to us, perhaps it is more a message about loving our neighbors, making sacrificial choices for the sake of others, praying for wisdom to know how to support our public officials and those ministering to the sick, and sharing the good news of Jesus who heals the sick and binds up the wounds of the brokenhearted, rather than a message of divine judgment.
Hebrews 1 tells us that Jesus is God’s final word for us. John 1 tells us that the unseen God is seen in Jesus. God is Jesus-shaped, and that means he comes to us incarnationally rather than in the kind of providential judgments and deliverances attributed to God in the First Testament.
Furthermore, the risen Jesus indwells his people through the Spirit he poured out upon us. The message of God to the world comes not through natural phenomena like coronavirus but through the good news proclaimed by and embodied in a people who bear his name. “War, plague, and famine” are not severe words from God. They are groans of a broken creation into which God sends his word of faith, hope, and love through Jesus-shaped people.
Perhaps, but that "perhaps" may be all it is, which isn't much of a rejoinder when you stop and actually think about it.
" ... rather than a message of divine judgment" might severe, in a passing phrase, the possibility that divine retribution and justification can be simultaneous.  That there is wheat doesn' t mean there aren't also tares, obviously.  The Jesus who drove out the money changers and confronted the powers that be that can be invoked when the executive is Trump might not have anything kinder or gentler to say about institution power and those who wield it even if the executive is an Obama.

Remove all aspects of postmillenialist theonomy from the old mainlines or the reactionary nationalist religious right and the possibility that the United States can be understood as part of "the nations" in Psalm 2's description of divine judgment against the nations doesn't seem that hard to consider.  That the United States is simply the latest iteration of Babylon the Great in earthly terms, regardless of whether we're talking about the reverse-engineered red state or blue state Jesus, also seems like something that gets avoided in the points and counterpoints.

Exodus 22:28's command to not revile God nor revile the leaders of the people could still be a binding instruction for us even if we regard the rulers of the people in our time and place as emblems of graft and misused power regardless of partisan loyalties.  Where anti-theists may see contradiction a Christian can see ambivalence regarding principalities, powers, the nature of the state which only ever has power through the power of the sword and the ambivalence Christians learn to live with regarding how the power that ought to be used to curtail and punish evil is in the course of the world and the people who live in it very often put to the use of perpetuating evil.

It can be easy for a Christian to say "The Jesus I believe in wouldn't punish us with a novel coronavirus" and if that's the case then there's no divine judgment aspect for, say, Trump's border policy?  No punishment regarding capitalism?  Or totalitarian aspects of Chinese rule?

Yet a paradox afoot is that while it's possible to assert by implication that one doesn't believe Jesus sent the plague to punish, it's still possible to argue, directly, that R. R. Reno is an idiot and a pharisee.

This Lenten season has been somewhat overwhelmed by all the attention paid to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it has given us all an opportunity to ponder some fundamental aspects of what we believe and how we view the world (certainly consistent with Lent’s purpose).
This morning I want to respond with utmost disagreement to a purportedly Christian perspective on what’s happening, from an article by R.R. Reno at First Things. Here is a key passage from his article:

In our simple-minded picture of things, we imagine a powerful fear of death arises because of the brutal deeds of cruel dictators and bloodthirsty executioners. But in truth, Satan prefers sentimental humanists. We resent the hard boot of oppression on our necks, and given a chance, most will resist. How much better, therefore, to spread fear of death under moralistic pretexts.
This is what is happening in New York as I write. The media maintain a drumbeat of warnings. And the message is not just that you or I might end up in an overloaded emergency room gasping for air. We are more often reminded that we can communicate the virus to others and cause their deaths.
Just so, the mass shutdown of society to fight the spread of COVID-19 creates a perverse, even demonic atmosphere. Governor Cuomo and other officials insist that death’s power must rule our actions. Religious leaders have accepted this decree, suspending the proclamation of the gospel and the distribution of the Bread of Life. They signal by their actions that they, too, accept death’s dominion.
This is nonsense. A complete failure to discern pile of nonsense. Pharisaic nonsense.
Reno imagines that putting into practice what we have learned from science and public health studies, now being advocated in an effort to save lives and protect the vulnerable is a wholesale capitulation to a materialistic mindset that is captive to the fear of death.

To support his argument, Reno imagines a laughable interpretation of what happened during the 1918 influenza epidemic. ...
and so ... 
That Reno invokes an Americana America of fantasy has been done, although it's not that hard to prove.

The old Blind Willie Johnson song "Jesus is Coming Soon" is about the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic and Johnson sang about how people closed down public schools and closed the churches; how the disease was mighty and took soldier and civilian alike; an era of American history in which Johnson could also cryptically mention President Wilson sitting on his throne making laws for everyone and wouldn't let the black man work by the white and ... Johnson self-censored the line after that verse in "When the War Was On".

All that noted, regarding what Reno as Pharisaical idiocy is shooting fish in a barrel.  Now it can be said that:
DeLorenzo is also on point when he says that the genuine Christian response to our current crisis is found, as always, in the cruciform way of Christ, who chose to sacrifice himself for the well being of others, especially the most vulnerable. Letting go of a bit of our autonomy for the good of our neighbors seems like a small sacrifice to me. And if we are asked to give more, then may God continue to guide us in a Jesus-shaped way.
In contrast, Reno’s article is preposterous, Pharisaic, and a complete failure to discern what it means to be a Christian in the world, especially in times of crisis

But note the language, "the genuine Christian response to our current crisis is found, as always, in the cruciform way of Christ, who ... "  Chaplain Mike doesn't tease out why that's the case, why Christians should eschew force, for instance.  In the time of a pandemic it doesn't seem impossible to trot out Leviticus 13 to point out that within the Mosaic law there was a precedent for self-imposed and priestly imposed quarantine, although there is, of course, debate as to what kind of "leprosy" is referenced in Leviticus 13 and whether it's a literal reference to Hansen's disease and so on.  All that considered briefly in passing, the observation that those who want to invoke Bible verses as prooftexts are at least invoking texts which is not always the case on the part of those whose rejoinder can amount to "The Jesus that I believe in wouldn't send disease to punish the society that I live in, whatever its flaws."  Let me be plain, a Confederate soldier could just as easily say that about his conception of America and his conception of Jesus as a Union soldier about his nation, and Mark Noll wrote a small book on The Civil War as a Theological Crisis about that issue.  

Yet here we are living in 2020 in the midst of a pandemic.  Here in Seattle we're already at a point where local markets are prescriptively rationing dried goods and toilet paper and sanitizers to forestall hoarding activity.  

Going to church when Governor Inslee has instituted a lockdown, however selective, on non-essential businesses that includes church gatherings; in a time when mass transit is getting reduced service and a person with disabilities may have to board mass transit with the risk of being exposed to a virus no one has immunity for and the lesser challenge of discovering that bus routes have been temporarily discontinued altogether; the idea that we should not forsake gathering together doesn't tend to revolve around "when two or three are gathered ... " as much as around the sacraments and sacramentology of high and low church leaders.  The Orthodox practice closed communion and cyber-church is probably never, as in ever, going to be a plausible option, but priests were known to do the circuit thing and so it would not be impossible to imagine priests traveling to where ever those who wish to take communion are and administer the elements.  A local Protestant church has taken to dropping off prepackaged elements at a pick up site so that members can pick up the elements and still take communion while other aspects of liturgical life are done via online streaming.  

If there's a silver lining to the presence of Mars Hill in Seattle for about twenty years, one silver lining is that so many people conversant in the technology of cyber services have dispersed into the Puget Sound area since the demise of Mars Hill that having online connections when physical meeting has become banned makes things easier.  One of the things that I have not seen discussed by able-bodied Christians is how utterly dependent the "do" or "don't" debates are predicated upon whether or not you can or should or shouldn't drive in a car to the church you go to.  In an American or Western context where city sprawl has been designed around the assumed universal use of cars many a church finds it impractical to meet on Sundays because one church with a central location can have members and participants who may come from dozens of neighborhoods, dozens of cities and even span county lines.  Any lockdown catalyzed by a pandemic would almost of necessity hit such a church life pretty hard.  Whatever the neighborhood church was before the advent of the automobile is not what the neighborhood church has been since the standardization of the automobile.  

I am reminded once again of Jeffrey Burton Russell pointing out that for the first ten centuries of Christianity there was not really much systematic theology around eucharist and what it meant and who was to administer it but there was a consensus that it was to be done because Jesus explicitly commanded it.  How it was done could vary but from the tenth century on there began to be debates about what eucharist accomplished, what it meant and how and how could administer it in particular ways.  Not that there was no discussion of eucharist before, of course, but Russell's case was that the systematics of sacramentology surrounding eucharist came centuries after the obviously more significant and far-reaching debates about the Trinity and christology had occurred.  

I don't think what we're seeing is fundamentalism on steroids in the kind of stuff Reno wrote even if the way that iMonk readership has shifted in the ten years since Michael's death have had it that such must be the case.  I think it's more an example of Americanism on steroids, whether on the part of Reno or Chaplain Mike.  

toggling between Theopolis Institute and Mere O discussions of race, something about it seems resolutely theoretical

In the last year or so Mere Orthodoxy contributors and participants have been broaching the subject of race and ... I'll quote somewhat extensively from some of what I've read ... .

It seems to stay firmly at the theoretical level, which isn't necessarily all bad ... but ...

The goal of reckoning is far from stoking a new round of white guilt. While facing the truth will likely lead to sadness and guilt, the more important aspect is the cultivation of a willingness to cultivate and craft approaches to theology and church life that facilitate genuine community and mission among Bible-believing Christians of different ethnic backgrounds in general and between whites and African-Americans in particular. To do this in the current climate is a tremendous challenge when there is a significant contingent of Christians who regard attention to these matters as distractions from the gospel and the intrusion of a purported cultural Marxism.
I admit a tremendous frustration every time I see someone use the language of cultural Marxism as a reason to be wary of efforts to engage questions of race and life in the church. As I look back over the last 30 years and think about the different reasons some Bible-believing Christians have avoided, neglected or resisted questions of race, I find it peculiar that this campaign against cultural Marxism has emerged fairly recently (maybe as early as 2001) as a central reason to have hesitation about pursuits of justice.
In all honestly, if the people who express these concerns about cultural Marxism had lots of examples of congregations that have an allergy to critical race theory but are leading the way in cultivating and practicing a faith that addresses the past and present challenges of race, I would be more inclined to take their warnings seriously. As far as I can tell, these people are not leading the way toward cultivating a gospel unity. Instead, I see the act of using the label “cultural Marxism” as a smokescreen or diversionary tactic that forestalls both the reckoning required to contend with theological-ethical failures on race and the subsequent work to pursue new paths of Christian discipleship. These are paths taken where life together means truly living out the implications of a gospel that compels us to love our neighbors as ourselves in ways interpersonal and public/political. This does not mean loyalty to any political party but a true submission to the Lordship of Christ. This Lordship means we are seeking to have our various commitments always subject to examination by the Holy Spirit, and a willingness to respond to what is exposed....
Yet, witnessing such attempts, along with the developing American conversation from a distance, I have felt a growing concern that the direction of the discourse is destined to produce a great deal more heat than light. It has seemed to me that recent years have witnessed a growing essentializing and ideologizing of racial discourse, as a specific set of discourses of American provenance have been conflated and projected into the world more generally in ways that cannot but prove unhelpful. The gains in rhetorical force have frequently come at the expense of clarity and understanding.
It seems to me that this is in no small measure a result of the abstraction of discourse encouraged by the Internet, on which vague ideological concepts can subsume and efface the particularity and variegation of concrete issues and events (which get rendered as de-particularized symbols of the concepts). Master concepts such as ‘white supremacy’, ‘white privilege’, or ‘whiteness’—concepts in which countless disparate tensions, inequities, and frustrations of myriads of individuals’ and communities’ lives can be agglomerated—may be incredibly low resolution for the purposes of analysis, yet are effective rhetorical tools for mass mobilization and offer catharsis in their naming of pervasive yet rather amorphous realities people feel.
When such vague abstract concepts dominate, particular persons, realities, and events can be stripped of their particularizing features and employed as symbols of the abstraction. The perception of the confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial in January last year is a good example of how just one 16-year-old boy’s face could come to bear the symbolic weight of ‘white supremacy’ and ‘toxic masculinity’, provoking the fiercest denunciations and attacks. His face served as a lightning rod for people’s anger about all that the vague master concepts symbolically concentrated in him represented in their lives
‘Whiteness’ has been much less effective at highlighting the operations of the power of an oligarchic class that rules society. This class accords privilege to certain institutions, agencies, and persons who depend upon them, but don’t have true power of their own. While racial animus has always been and continues to be a deep problem in American life (albeit mild compared to that which one encounters in many other countries), by focusing too much upon it, the agency of the oligarchy, which has little to no actual solidarity with lower class Americans of European origin, is conveniently hidden. Indeed, rather too much contemporary racial discourse is a petitioning for privilege from the oligarchic class and its orbiting institutions, while the lower classes of European-Americans serve as the ‘white’ whipping boy for the actual ruling forces in society. 
Whiteness is a colonial category birthed in Portugal. It is there, as Willie James Jennings observes, that imperial expansion and a racial scale mingled and produced the start of whiteness. We see this in the first recorded slave auction. Reflecting on the year 1444, Portugal’s royal chronicler Gomes Eanes de Azurara writes:
[On] the next day, which was the 8th of the month of August, very early in the morning, by reason of the heat, the seamen began to make ready their boats, and to take out those captives, and carry them on shore, as they were commanded. And these, placed all together in that field, were a marvelous sight; for amongst them were some white enough, fair to look upon, and well proportioned; others were less white like mulattoes; others again were as black as Ethiops [Ethiopians], and so ugly, both in features and in body, as almost to appear (to those who saw them) the images of a lower hemisphere.
Though all depicted are slaves, not all are equal. Some are “white,” and therefore “fair to look upon, and well proportioned.” Others are “black,” and hence “ugly”—as if they had come from Hell itself. In between the heavenly and hellish flesh are the mulattoes, the mixed who receive little discussion.
Whether Iberian or Anglo, French or Dutch, conceptions of whiteness shape how European empires construct the Americas and Caribbean. But these conceptions are not identical; “whiteness” isn’t monolithic—it comes in various forms. When a seventeenth century Spaniard, for example, conceives of herself as truly white, superior, and Christian, she does so as a Roman Catholic who interacts with the world through Spanish. For her, to be white, superior, and Christian is to be an Iberian Roman Catholic who speaks and thinks in Spanish.
Not so for the seventeenth century English. They think that being white, superior, and Christian is to be a free English citizen who speaks English and is Protestant. Walter Mignolo captures how these conceptions fit within two general colonial categories. “’Whites’ in South America were Roman Catholics and spoke Latin (or Romance) languages.” Matters differ in North America. There whiteness was “based on Protestantism and Anglo-Saxon languages.” Hence alternative views of whiteness are tied to geography, language, and religious communions. Each informs imperial competitions for global power.
Yet during the seventeenth century, the Anglo-Saxon based conception of whiteness begins to surpass its Iberian counterpart. And by the nineteenth century, ex-Spanish and ex-Portuguese colonies start championing “Latinidad”—a cultural and political vision of a Roman/Latin-based community. This movement originates among the Creole-Mestizo/a elite. Speaking of the ex-Spanish, Mignolo observes: “White Creole and Mestizo/a elites, in South America and the Spanish Caribbean islands, after independence from Spain adopted ‘Latinidad’ to create their own postcolonial identity.” Columbian Torres Caicedo was influential here. According to Caicedo:
There is Anglo-Saxon America, Danish America, Dutch America, etc.; there is also Spanish America, French America and Portugese America; and therefore to this second group what other scientific name applies but Latin?


The problem of white identity living parasitically off of theological identity has not magically disappeared over time. The use of white identity to influence theological and soteriological vision continued in America for centuries, albeit in increasingly hidden ways. Just as the Colonial Virginia law-makers had done, white Americans in the 19th and 20th Centuries held onto social power and maintained the appearance of Christian virtue by obscuring their hatred. Marybeth Swetnam Mathews’ book, Doctrine and Race details the use of segregation among white, Christian ministries in the early twentieth century to maintain white supremacy where standards of doctrinal fidelity were used against black people whose identity as Christian had barely been conceded after centuries of denial:

This insistence on separate ministry begins to hint at why white fundamentalists did not call for a mission among American blacks. Rather, they preferred to maintain their distance, calling for white-controlled seminaries to train black men to prevent the tide of modernist, socialist, communist, or Roman Catholic thought among African Americans nationally. (Mathews, p31)
While the examples in Mathews’ book are from almost one hundred years ago, it exposes an almost liturgical pattern. White advantage and the appearance of Christian virtue are maintained through grudging social concessions that are then a claim for moral high ground to be used against black people. This pattern continues today when white people claim colorblindness in response to calls to address systemic racism. Overtly racist words and actions do not benefit white people who like their social advantages and also like the title, ‘Christian,’ but covert words and actions do.
This isn’t just a societal problem, it’s a church problem. White identity continues to have a parasitic relationship to soteriology. We can see this in James White’s 2016 summary of the black church as more prone to error than the white church, and in Paige Patterson’s letter questioning the commitment to inerrancy of a black candidate for SBC President. We can see this when white Christians flee diverse cities, or avoid living in black neighborhoods when they do move into cities. We see this when white Christians don’t even consider attending black churches close to where they live. De facto segregation is perhaps the most common means by which white Christians today retain social privileges along with some semblance of the title ‘Christian,’ following in the hypocritical steps of previous generations of white Christians, and the hypocritical steps of Peter and the Circumcision Party in Galatians 2.

White identity may one day be removed from the top of theological and social hierarchies, just as the Portuguese and Spanish were. It may transform and adjust in some form, but the association of immutable characteristics with theological judgment and segregation is not going to magically disappear. It has infected Christian hearts and churches for centuries. We are setting up future generations of Christians to repeat Peter’s mistake and the mistake of our ‘white’ ancestors if we do not openly attack and undermine both the broken biblical anthropology and the disparate social conditions that continue to racialize our darker-skinned neighbors.

White identity is the modern equivalent of a twisted idea of what it meant to be Jewish in the 1st century. The human heart is sinful indeed, who can understand it? But with bold faith and spiritual eyes, we can confront false identities that inform conduct that is out of step with the gospel. 

If white identity is removed one day from the top of the theological and social hierarchies I have no reason to believe that whatever replaces it will be better or more just.   Take Doug Shadle's advocacy for canceling the 19th century.  Sure, there's a lot about the 19th century I wish hadn't happened, particularly in connection to bloodleeting and racist agendas but I don't think it is necessarily a given that those racist agendas were then what a blanket description of white identity can sometimes describe them as being here and now. 

What do I mean by that?  Well, to give a for instance of Pacific Northwest aboriginal groups, it turned out that hunter gatherer cultures were perfectly capable of having a robust sense of what we would now call intellectual property rights on the one hand and a deeply entrenched network of slavery practices on the other.  A focus on the Atlantic slave trade across Africa, Europe and the United States could run the risk of ignoring the slave trade between Africa and India, for instance, or the slavery systems practiced by aboriginal groups in the North and South American continents. 

To put it in the harshest and most provocative way possible, merely changing the scapegoat ethnic or racial identity that is held responsible for the failures of a network of cultural and economic systems doesn't mean we're going to stop scapegoating.  In one WASPy era the scapegoat might be foreigners or Jews or blacks but in Zimbabwe the scapegoat of choice might be whites for a dictator and in Uganda different African groups can regard each other as seeds of social and cultural ruin without reference to whiteness at all.

Let's take Doug Shadles invitation that we cancel the 19th century.

and the assertion that the symphony in some way is a pillar of white supremacist ideology

Well, okay, so how about if in the age of the coronavirus pandemic all of the arts get decimated to the point where they are not economically viable?

It's one thing to set yourself against the ideologies of aesthetic autonomy and Romantic era notions of art as a sanctifying sacramental religion in a post-Wagnerian mold.  Richard Taruskin's set himself against both of those for more or less his whole academic and public career and I'm openly sympathetic to those agendas.  It's another thing to treat the entire Western musical range of traditions as symbolic of a white supremacist ideology predicated on a conception of race that, as the philosopher John Gray put it in Seven Types of Atheism, wasn't even formulated until the Enlightenment. 

In his book Imagining Native America in Music Michael V Pisani pointed out that sixteenth and seventeenth century European thinkers were taken with polygenism, an idea that claimed that racial groups had an irreducible common ancestor so blacks would be descended from a black first ancestor, whites the same, and American Indians had a common ancestor.  Pisani pointed out that what this meant in reference to all the above referenced, is that while many a European may have assumed Adam was white there were some who proposed that American Indians, not being descended from Adam, may have been unstained by original sin.   If to a biblicist or biblical literalist such an idea would seem preposterous it's one of those things that can seem peculiar to a twenty-first century CE reader on other grounds.  It may thematically tie in with ideas that whites have had about their innately higher levels of learning and so on but the stereotypology of the noble savage and the merely savage savage could find a potential mirror in variations on whiteness of more recent vintage in which there's the cultured urbane educated English sort at one end and the racist redneck hick at another end. 

Writing as I do with an interest in music what I find aggravating about these sorts of discourses is that these are battles at the level of historiography more than history, and they can seem to be battles that are establishing outcomes for academic turf wars that do not necessarily yield two to five notes or more of music in which the ideologies imputed to or read into musical canons of every sort yield music that necessarily "solves" the problems found by academics in the music of the distant or recent past.

I think there's a case to be made that musicians should be all the more eager to learn from the symphonic tradition what can be translated into other types of musical life and activity if it may be that the age of the symphony is in some way waylaid by this pandemic and governmental responses to it.  We may not need to "cancel the 19th century" at all, if all that means is changing focus from the 19th century canons to other 21st century constructed canons proposed by academics whose advocacy is open and never in doubt.  The novel coronavirus may render the symphony itself and whatever it's said to represent moot. 

As someone who admires a lot of work by Beethoven but considers him, compared to Haydn, a self-important bloviating blowhard I think fans of 19th century concert music might benefit from a reminder that as eras change the "timeless" nature of anything turns out to not be timeless.  There are people who in the next ten years will have probably grown up never hearing any of the songs of John, Paul, George and Ringo and there's no reason at all to think their musical lives will have been impoverished for it.  There are people who can go through life having never heard Beethoven's Fifth or Ninth who can make music and love music. 

The bad faith that can seem to happen in musicology and music history can be, if this hobbyist guitarist and amateur composer can dare to be so plain, developing a range of ideological stances through which music people love is collapsed into a range of ideologies and myths founded on what are ultimately extra-musical and non-musical indicators or standards of legitimacy and authenticity.  Meanwhile, the boundaries within or across musical styles that, in so many cases in the West are really hemmed in by the constraints of equal temperament 12 tone chromaticism and no more, are treated as more sacred and impermeable than they ever really were, or are. 

To put this in an admittedly simple way, plenty of electricians and plumbers and construction workers can enjoy classical music without feeling condescended to. That so much of the music in the "classical" traditions was written, as the composer George Walker put it, by elites for elites does not always have to entail, as Rick Robinson has cogently put it, that such music is inherently elitist. 

But a good deal of discourse within academic contexts can seem determined to keep the discussion at that level. 

I've been on this hobby horse at my blog for years, of course, but I have been disappointed by the ways in which artists and arts journalism have seemed to cede any and all populist impulses to Trump and to totalitarian mass movements.  The risk of such a rhetorical and intellectual stance has seemed self-evident to me--if the "creative" classes view any and all forms of populism as some variant of Nazi rebirth or as Marxist agitprop (whether endorsed or condemned) then arts castes and tastemakers are still running with post Cold War stereotypes and myths that I would think we've had decades to do some work to dismantle.

It's a topic for another post but I'm struck by how attempts to develop jazz/classical fusions in communist bloc nations can seem to have been more effective, for my listening pleasure, than comparable experiments in the non-communist or non-Marxist west.  Ellul wasn't wrong to highlight in The Empire of Non-Sense the ways in which many of the aesthetic and technical revolutions of modern art evolved in mostly parallel paths despite the ideological oppositions between Western capitalist/democratic systems and communist systems.  It can turn out that the arts of technological societies can converge on matters of technique (in Ellul's definition and usage) despite obvious and florid conflicts at other levels of political ideology or metaphysical claims.  But what is interesting to me after decades of listening to and reading about music and considering Western arts criticism is what was summed up by Leonard B. Meyer, that there has been a crisis in which the Western ideology of pluralism has simply not been broad enough or versatile enough to take on board the actual pluralism in the world.  For those who define pluralism in pejorative terms or who take pluralism itself as a goal what's struck me lately is how those who swear by pluralism in the arts don't seem to really be able to make much of it. 

In other words in a market-driven arts scene pluralism is the ideology of advertisement and for what might alternately be "the long tail" or the proposal of a new canon to displace the old one in which contemporary advocacy established what should go and what should be brought in.  A pro-pluralist agenda can establish the "what" without necessarily coming up with a clear or convincing reason "why" and get shipwrecked on the matter of "how" in pandemic conditions.

But the anti-pluralist stance can seem to run aground in another way.  If the Enlightenment, for instance, was to be a kind of universal best of humanity why was that meted out so unevenly in practice?  As John Gray put it in Seven Types, the Enlightenment simultaneously gave us aspirations to universal rights for men and a range of ideologies about race, sex and caste that ensured that the exceptions and exemptions would be realized in practice in contrast to the abstraction of the universal rights of man.  Freedom of opportunity and expression for everyone ... who deserves it.

Something my brother once shared with me as he was reading up on the development of communism in China was that many of the power broker families who ran things before the transition simply said they were communist and transitioned into maintaining powerful rules in the society.  To formulate this generalization in a way that can translate into my ongoing blog riffs on canons and ideologies and music and talk of politics, those who lord it over others in a way Jesus taught his followers to not emulate can come up with all kinds of ideological rationales for why they get to be the appointed ones who lord it over others and it's often literally as well as figuratively, politically and metaphorically their business to establish why these confessional/professional categories entitle them to their stances.  Any sort of despot can invoke enlightenment as a reason for the despotism.  Sometimes and in some places that can work out in the form of talk about race while in others it emerges through other affirmations.  My brother's perhaps dour sentiment of late has been that so many have fretted about the military-industrial establishment that the educational-industrial establishment doesn't get the same criticism.  Talk of race and racism can bring some of the past sins of academia to light but what doesn't seem to be doubted so much is that the academics of today can prescribe the cure for the racist ideologies that were formulated by, well, many an academic of the past.  Maybe, but is what's going to be put in place actually going to be an improvement? 

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

a captain obvious op-ed that the coronavirus crisis has particularly hit urban life (aka "life as we know it"); also, theft at Notre Dame cathedral

By Michael Kimmelman
Published March 17, 2020
Updated March 22, 2020


Traditionally, we seek solace in religion, sports, entertainment and in the promise that modern science and societies provide all the tools needed to solve any problem.

But the coronavirus undermines our most basic ideas about community and, in particular, urban life. Historians tell us that cities emerged thousands of years ago for economic and industrial reasons — technological leaps produced a surplus of agricultural goods, which meant not everyone had to keep working the land.

Still, cities also grew, less tangibly, out of deeply human social and spiritual needs. The very notion of streets, shared housing and public spaces stemmed from and fostered a kind of collective affirmation, a sense that people are all in this together.

Pandemics prey on this relentlessly. They are anti-urban. They exploit our impulse to congregate. And our response so far — social distancing — not only runs up against our fundamental desires to interact, but also against the way we have built our cities and plazas, subways and skyscrapers. They are all designed to be occupied and animated collectively. For many urban systems to work properly, density is the goal, not the enemy.

As Restoration of Notre-Dame Cathedral Grinds to a Halt, Thieves Break In


Monday, March 23, 2020

an indoor amusement, title mashups that force genre clash

My siblings and I got into Mystery Science Theater 3000 decades ago.  I don't watch the show anymore but it may be one of the distinctives of a good swath of Generation X that we have this kind of humor, the admittedly cruel sense of humor about the shortfalls of artistic aspirations--whether making fun of movies that aspired to greatness and failed or that just failed.

But something one of my siblings and I began to play with is a word game of title mash-ups where the goal is to juxtapose films that are so thematically and tonally at odds as to yield a composite film almost certain to fail.  Full disclosure, many of these movies I have never seen and don't even plan to see but know enough about to incorporate into the following title word-game jokes.

I can give some examples:

I Spit on Your Grave of the Fireflies: I Spit on Your Grave, Grave of the Fireflies

Angel's Egg in the Outfield: Angel's Egg, Angel's in the Outfield (saw one of the only legal showings of Angel's Egg that happened)

Over the Top Gunsmoke: Over the Top, Top Gun, Gunsmoke

The Risky Business of Fancy-Dancing: Risky Business, The Business of Fancy-Dancing

Flashdances with Wolves: Flashdance, Dances with Wolves

Where the Wild Things Are: Where the Wild Things Are, Wild Things

Ghost Dad in the Shell:  Ghost Dad, Ghost in the Shell

You can see the anime motif runs strongly through the list but you can stay on the Atlantic side of things with:

12 Angry Monkeys: do I have to even spell this mash up out?
Eyes Without a Face/Off: again, do I have to explain that one?
Bring it On Golden Pond
Suspiria: Stallion of Cimmaron (okay, maybe at least some know Suspiria but less know Spirit: Stallion of Cimmaron)
What True Lies Beneath
All Plague Dogs Go to Heaven
It's a Wonderful Lifeforce
Tree of Lifeforce
Flashdance on the Thin Red Line

you get the idea.

If we extend the game to television some of the results can be
AutoManimal (who wants to see a mashup of Automan and Manimal? No one, I hope)

Forever Knight Rider (if you missed both Forever Knight and Knight Rider you're probably better for it)

Because some kind of Law & Order send up seems necessary for this variant of the game
Glee: Special Victims Unit

Other possibilities
Hill Street Blue's Clues
Turbo TeenWolf

I admit that a survey of these kinds of titles might reveal that the humor is simultaneously obvious, esoteric, and maybe a bit acid.